Posts from May 2015
May 14th, 2015
Any given issue of the mighty TLS will be an intellectual and even emotional journey, and the 1 May issue was no exception. The showpiece of the issue was the great conductor Leon Botstein reviewing two new books about the composer Franz Schubert, one of which was Ian Bostridge’s Schubert’s Winter Journey, so ably reviewed by our Open Letters Editor-in-Chief Greg Waldmann in our current issue. Like Waldmann, Botstein is actually a fan of this composer’s wretchedly lachrymose song-cycles, although unlike Waldmann, Botstein panics and falls back on quasi-reviewspeak gibberish:
Schubert’s music transfigured the particular without falsifying suffering through cheap sentimentality. His was not confessional music. Rather, he used the vantage point of the deeply personal, to reach beyond his particular historical context and communicated both an uncanny emotional and philosophical intensity and a resistant realism about the human existential predicament.
That was disappointing, granted, but the same issue had plenty of compensations, from a review of Pat Shipman’s prehistoric-dog book The Invaders by the great Ian Tattersall, in which he dissents from the book’s main thesis but agrees with its rueful inspiration:
Still, few if any readers of this lucid and compelling exposition will come away believing that the early modern Europeans were not deeply implicated in the Neanderthals’ disappearance. Clearly, our guilt complex about these unfortunate hominids is entirely warranted.
And other good stuff, from a review of The Underdogs by Mariano Azuela done by Open Letters friend and erstwhile contributor (and mastermind of The Quarterly Conversation) Scott Esposito to a short bit of praise by John Ure for Erik Larson’s Dead Wake about the doomed Lusitania – a short bit of praise during which Ure feels compelled to take up a chunk of his precious space doing a note-perfect imitation of a classic reviewer-pedant:
British readers may be exasperated by some of the Americanisms. The First Lord of the Admiralty is not ‘Britain’s top naval official’ but the minister responsible for the navy in the government; and the use of the word ‘rug’ rather than ‘blanket’ (on a deck chair) may not strike readers as a peculiar case of ‘the ship’s vernacular’. But these are minor quibbles.
And speaking of Open Letters (as, indeed, when am I not?), how could a passage in David McKitterick’s review of Lotte Hellinga’s Texts in Transit fail to bring to mind many a hectic late-night deadline session:
At the centre was not so much the press as the compositor, the man who set the type. Whatever his copy might offer, whether direct from an author, from an old manuscript, from a new one, or even from a mixture, he had somehow to fit words into the given space available on the press.
There’s not one of us associated with Open Letters who hasn’t breathed a silent prayer of thanks for our own compositor, Kennen McCarthy, on those hectic nights when the monthly issue is springing into being, and there’s not one of us who hasn’t at least once received one of his politely pointed (or is it pointedly polite?) emails asking where X is when X is something we thought we’d sent him days ago. McKitteridge is right to point out the vital nature of such people in actually getting a publication to its intended recipients.
If only the whole of this issue of the TLS could have been so congenial! But no: instead, on the letters pages a note was struck that was so sour, so bitter, so selfish that it effectively soiled the entire issue.
Historian and biographer Fred Kaplan, writing about the documentary remains of the great Gore Vidal, sends a letter about ‘four substantial loose-leaf volumes of chronologically arranged typescripts of Vidal’s letters that have an honoured place on my basement storage shelves.’ The context is the open question of a “Collected Correspondence” volume of Vidal’s letters, and the more you read Kaplan on the subject, the more your jaw drops in astonishment:
Vidal is a magnificent letter-writer. The letters ought to be published. Perhaps I could be persuaded to edit them for publication under the right circumstances. No one else, I suspect, will ever collect them or be able to collect them from their owners. But it would take a lot of persuasion. And there is the question of who controls the estate (contested, I think) and probably issues of control and costs. Why don’t I simply turn over all my transcriptions to the Vidal archive at Harvard and let someone else edit them for publication? Perhaps I will, at my death. In the meantime, I suppose, I’m getting a small bit of revenge, which perhaps doesn’t speak well of me, But I trust that some of your readers will not be entirely unsympathetic.
Revenge – on a man who’s been dead for years. At the expense of all that man’s fans and the entire scholarly community. But Kaplan has the nerve to say that PERHAPS this doesn’t speak well of him, and he says this in the middle of a thinly-veiled and incredibly petulant demand that the Republic of Letters court him – perhaps with flowers and chocolates (but really with a pile of money) – to calm down and stop holding a grudge against Vidal. We understand you’ve been hurt, we’re supposed to say, those of us who’d like to read the letters Kaplan is hoarding, but if you’ll just accept our groveling apologies for how he treated you, maybe …
It’s nauseating, and Kaplan follows it up with a steaming pile of bile:
Vidal had a self-destructive or at least a self-defeating streak. I suspect that he believed he was punishing me for disloyalty or non-obedience when he ended our relationship. The result, though, is that there is no edition of his letters. There may never be one. This short-sightedness was part of a lifelong pattern. He was a witty but not a wise man. He alienated or expelled almost every friend, family member, editor, publisher and literary peer, with the exceptions of Howard Austen and Jay Parini, both of whom put up with abusive treatment in order to stay close to him; he made decision after decision, including his residence in Italy, that limited or damaged his American career and presence; and he allowed a desire for celebrity and celebrity-mongering to dominate his life. Indeed, he accomplished much as a novelist, essayist and political polemicist. But his arrogance, manipulativeness, cruelty, alcoholism, and self-deception were always all too evident and limiting … Towards the end his dementia added a sad coda. It was a great talent heavily burdened. I wish it could have been otherwise.
The classic bent reasoning of an abusive bully: the attempt to characterize his own boorish actions as mere reactions, the disgusting “I’m sorry you made me do this” line of every two-bit extortioner in history. “The result, though, is that there is no edition of his letters. There may never be one.” And why? Because Gore Vidal, who’s now, it bears repeating, dead, was mean to Fred Kaplan. That’s why Kaplan will neither produce a “Collected Letters” volume nor allow anybody else access to his unique materials. That’s why – the threat is plainly implied – he may destroy those materials rather than allow them to fall into some scholar’s hands after his death.
Like I said, reading his letter, seeing that such despicable self-absorbed censorship exists even at the heart of the writing world, soiled the rest of the issue for me. If there’s any justice in the world, Kaplan will be raked over the coals in subsequent letters pages for his abominable behavior, but I won’t hold my breath.
May 5th, 2015
There was never any real doubt that I would return to The New Republic even in what Penny Press historians will refer to as the Post-Chotiner Period. After all, the magazine still has an ample Books section, and even though that section is now run by a couple of guys who did themselves no PR favors during the melodramatic “Whither TNR?” Transition Period a few months ago, the institution itself still has (relatively) deep pockets and will therefore still attract some noteworthy freelance work. How could it be otherwise, smart writers being what they are? Like what I suspect was the majority of the magazine’s long-time readers, I stood back for a few months, waited for the dust to settle, and then warily returned to the scene, as it were, of the crime.
I bought the May issue for the headline takedown of Cornell West about which I’d already heard some intriguing things. And I wasn’t disappointed: Michael Eric Dyson’s piece is very good, and all the more powerful for being so personal. Likewise the first-rate investigation of “click farms,” shady outfits where social media users can pay for clicks and ‘likes.’ I hadn’t known anything about such places, but I suspect I’ve experienced their handiwork, since my paltry number of followers on Twitter, while adamantly refusing to reach 300, fluctuates in the upper 290s with such week-to-week regularity that I long ago suspected some sort of low-wattage fraud had to be involved (I’m annoying, yes, but I’m amazingly consistently annoying).
If only I’d quit while I was ahead! If only I’d stopped after Cornel West and the compu-bots! But nooooo! By that point I was engaged with the issue – so I read William Giraldi’s piece on why the world will always need printed books.
The simple description itself should have warned me off. Articles about the joys of physical books tend to fall into one of two categories: self-congratulation or semi-brainless knee-jerk conservatism. Aw, who am I kidding? Articles about the joys of physical books always, always cover both categories.
Giraldi’s little essay here is no exception on either count. The two things you’re supposed to take away from reading it are: printed books are cooler than e-books ever could be, and William Giraldi is the coolest collector of printed books on Planet Earth.
He hits all the usual notes for this kind of clap-trap. He talks about how many books he owns; he talks about how early in life he caught the book-collecting bug; he quotes from all the usual suspects when it comes to sound bites for his piece, from Leigh Hunt to E. M. Forster to, of course, Borges; and he reduces the whole alleged superiority of printed books to two things: their aura and their odor.
The odor part is the single most annoying refrain printed-book snobs always harp on whenever the subject comes up: the smell of the paper. In my bookselling career, I heard it so often that I ended up wanting to bop all of these budding Hannibal Lecters in the kisser. Giraldi goes at it with a vengeance:
The physicality of the book, the sensuality of it – the book as a body that permits you to open it, insert your face between its covers and breathe, to delve into its essence – that is what many of us seek in the book as object.
I’d call the cops if somebody started sticking his face inside my books, and it’s all so ridiculous anyway, all these professed book-lovers going around sniffing pages and lapsing into weak-kneed euphoria.
When Giraldi shifts from odor to aura, things get even worse, in part because he references a better writer than himself, pointing out a piece in which Sven Birkerts speaks of “that kind of reading which is just looking at books,” the “expectant tranquility” of sitting looking at his library, the sense of “futurity” he gets, etc. How woeful that a former Brattle Bookshop acolyte should ever have written such codswallop as to assert that looking at his books is a kind of reading, and how lamentable that somebody like Giraldi should then praise such an idiotic idea: “Expectant tranquility and sense of futurity,” he writes, “those are what the noncollector and what the downloader of e-books does not experience, because only an enveloping presence permits them.”
“I’m sorry,” he goes on, “but your Nook has no presence.”
So this fierce defender of printed books is mainly praising not reading them or studying them but simply having them, on display for others to see. Lovely. What clearly bothers him most about the idea of reading on a Nook is that this element of external display is absent – it’s just you and the books.
“You scroll and swipe and click your way through your life,” Giraldi insufferably scolds, “scanning screens for information and interruption, screens that force you into a want of rapidity.” (That fumbling fake-antiquing of “in a want of rapidity” – here simply an incorrect way of saying “into a wanting for rapidity” – is typical of windbag essays of this kind, where every junior G-grade book poser tries to sound like William Hazlitt; Giraldi also uses “mounts” instead of “mountains” and “wilderness grot” for “wilderness grotto”), but a printed book encourages you to “be alone with yourself, in silence, in solitude, in the necessary sensitivity that fosters development and imagination.”
None of this kind of hooey is ever true. The pretentious ninnies who swoon over the odor of printed pages neither noticed nor cared about such a thing before e-books showed up. And this one’s important: people who rhapsodize about reading in silence and solitude share one thing in common: they don’t currently read at all. They might dabble and sample, but this gauze-tinted scenario they describe, where they retreat to some wilderness grot with a beautiful leatherbound tome and soak it up in blissful silence and solitude? It’s pure hogwash. It never happens. They never do it. Indeed, it’s been my suspicion for years that they can’t do it anymore.
It’s true you can’t swan and swoon in front of admirers when you’re reading on an e-reader. You can’t make wistful, faux-woeful comments to less literate onlookers (Giraldi describes an encounter with a neighborhood cop that would make a less foppish writer cringe in embarrassment) about how much they add to your life, even though you know you’ll never read them all, etc.
But you can most certainly read on an e-reader. You can most certainly lose yourself in a book on an e-reader. Inevitably in pieces like this, the qualities of printed books that are sung the loudest are non-literary qualities, but you can read books on an e-reader, just as genuinely and easily as you read printed books. Hell, you can even call up your library and just sit there looking at your e-books – but nobody else can, which is clearly the rub.
April 16th, 2015
As obvious as obvious gets, and yet I chuckled aloud over my bai sach chrouk:
March 18th, 2015
I’ve had occasion to comment many times here at Stevereads about some of the contradictions that seem hard-wired into the particular magazine sub-genre of the lad-mag “men’s” titles. They routinely feature ‘back to basics’ articles teaching their audience of over-salaried douche-dudes how to strip away the clutter from their lives and live simply and organically, but they also feature glossy product-endorsements for $25,000 bicycles and $70,000 wristwatches. They line up the most enticing recipes for healthy salads and smoothies, but their pages are loaded with color ads for cigars and chewing tobacco. And as a persistent curiosity, although they notify their readers of all the various health problems they’ll face once they’re their editors’ ages, they also feel the need to have an in-house doctor to answer emailed questions. And the doctors are always, always quacks.
Probably this is because real doctors, responsible ones, are both too busy and too smart to try trash-compacting meaningful scientific answers into bite-sized ‘Hey Bro’ two-sentence answers, but that just makes the whole phenomenon more troubling, since it means the quacks who end up taking the job – who’ll very likely be the only medical authority these young readers consult until their prostates drop through the kitchen floor – pretty much have the field to themselves. The resultant reading can be entertaining, as long as you don’t take any of it too seriously.
A perfect case in point would be the – and I’m not making this up – “Ask Dr. Bob” feature of my beloved Men’s Journal. The feature promises: “Our in-house doc answers your questions about health, fitness, and living adventurously,” and this latest issue starts off with a pretty simple question: “Every spring, my asthma gets worse. What can I do?”
Dr. Bob always has an answer at the ready, and his first lines are usually geared along the Superfreakonomics line of “What? But I thought – I mean, I always assumed … wow! tell me more!” And this is no exception: he fires back, “Get some sunshine.”
Sunshine? But I thought we were talking about asthma? Huh? Dr. Bob explains:
A recent study from Tel Aviv University of more than 20,000 asthmatics found that those with a vitamin D deficiency were 25 percent more likely to have flare-ups. Asthma causes inflammation in, and narrowing of, the airways; vitamin D may counter these ill effects by bolstering the immune system and reducing inflammation. Natural light is the best way for your body to synthesize the vitamin, and you should aim for 15 minutes of rays – or about half the time it takes for your skin to turn pink – two or three times a week (you can find out exactly how much sun you need for your skin type and location with the app Dminder). And if you can’t get outside, take a vitamin D supplement of at least 2,000 IU daily.
Sunshine! What? But I thought – I mean, I always assumed …
The Tel Aviv study Dr. Bob mentions of course turns out to be less than useless, except for its counter-intuitive value. It involved hundreds of thousands, even millions, of patient records … but no living patients, and certainly no actual testing: in other words, it was just an extended exercise in computer algorithms. And computer algorithms from only one study. Given the base numbers, the same ‘study’ could also have found a correlation between asthma flare-up and being left-handed. Want to help your asthma? Try switching your writing hand! A recent study shows … What? My writing hand? But I thought – I mean, I always assumed … So what’s the point of the blithe reply? My guess would be to root around in that Dminder app (who helped develop it, who has financial stakes in Dr. Bob recommending it, who’s helping its developer – RobCo., Inc, to publicize it, etc.), but it hardly matters – Dr. Bob has plenty more advice to dispense. Like to this poor sufferer:
I recently broke my arm skiing. Is there anything I can do to stay in decent shape while I recover?
And Dr. Bob’s answer?
First, keep exercising your good arm. Doing shoulder presses and raises, triceps extensions, and biceps curls with your non-injured arm will actually prevent your bad arm from getting weaker. That’s thanks to a process called the contralateral strength training effect – when one side gets stronger, it helps the other side retain strength, too. (A recent study found this can actually help you gain 8 percent of strength in your injured limb.)
What? A kind of exercise that strengthens muscles you aren’t working? But I thought … I mean, I always assumed …
Fortunately, there’s always the mighty TLS as a respite from quackery … to ping-backery! In online parlance, a ‘pingback’ happens when something you wrote is linked-to from somewhere out there in cyberspace. I don’t have any use for that definition here, since Stevereads is still, after all these years, the best-kept secret in the book-circles of the Internet, but in lieu of actual, you know, popularity, I’ve devised a different definition: for me, a ‘pingback’ happens when a literary journal to which I subscribe publishes a review of a book I myself have likewise reviewed.
That happened not once, not twice, but three times in the 6 March issue of the TLS. Gerald Butt took care of two of those three times all by himself, reviewing in one piece both Ataturk in the Nazi Imagination by Stefan Ihrig and Islam and Nazi Germany’s War by David Motadel. He found both books very worthy, as did I, reviewing the Ihrig here and the Motadel here. And Sumita Mukherjee turned in a shorter but very tight review of Anita Anand’s delightful Sophia, about the Sikh princess Sophia Duleep Singh, who became a suffragette during the reign of her godmother Queen Victoria. I reviewed the book for a newspaper on the other side of the world and had a grand time doing it, so I was pleased that Mukherjee categorizes it as “necessary” – grudging though such a term tends to sound.
And when I was done enjoying those pingbacks, I cut them out of the issue, crumpled them up, and ate them with a chaser of prune juice. I read a Yelp review that mentioned somebody mentioning a study somewhere that said crumpled-up book reviews help you re-grow your baby teeth, you see, and I really miss those little guys.
Re-grow baby teeth!!! But I thought … I mean, I always assumed …
January 31st, 2015
I’ve often been asked – indeed, I often ask myself – why on Earth I’d continue to read a magazine as politically zealous, not to say crackpot, as the National Review, and my answer – given a few times even here on Stevereads – is that I try my best to ignore the frong half of every issue and focus instead on the book reviews in the back half, where I can often find good stuff. The 9 February issue was a good case-in-point: the front half was full of the usual hateful, mean-spirited, vile, adolescent ad hominem garbage that has, alas, come to characterize the 21st-century Republican Party: idiotic sneers at the very idea that women might face systematic discrimination, or that a gigantic federal government might have even the slightest moral obligation to help out its poorest citizens, or that the reckless actions of the industrial West are turning Earth’s climate into that of equatorial Venus (this issue also featured a cartoon of President Obama dressed as an ISIL terrorist, in case you were wondering), etc., every article interspersed with full-page ads for all-Tea Party cruises where your Captain’s Table pundits will regale you with spellbinding stories about money.
But in the back of the issue, there was some good stuff. Michael Knox Beran, for instance, became the latest reviewer to call Andrew Roberts’ new Napoleon Bonaparte biography a masterpiece even while politely disagreeing with all of its central claims; the book put me in the exact same bind a couple of months ago.
And since the National Review caters to the wingnut presses, they’ll often have reviews of books not even I, with my indefatigable catalogue-trawling, would ever hear of. There’s a review of one such book in this issue. It’s put out by the Brookings Institution’s press, and it’s called The Professor and the President: Daniel Patrick Moynihan in the Nixon White House by Stephen Hess. I’ve always been fascinated by Moynihan (and I very much enjoyed Greg Weiner’s new book about him, American Burke), so I was naturally interested to read the review, titled “An Odd Couple for the Ages” and written by James Rosen.
Rosen says the book is written with “scholarly care and memoirist’s flair,” and that it’s “a brisk, lively read, a concise and shrewdly observed portrait of an unlikely political alliance” … but by far the most remarkable part of his review came under the noxious book reviewer humble-bragging tag of “full disclosure,” where the reviewer usually confesses to having had a friendly chat with the author once years ago at the country club they once shared until they both quit when the place started admitting black people (what can I say? As the old saying goes, when you lie down with the National Review, you wake up in a gated community with alcoholic children and a wife who hates you). To put it mildly, Rosen takes this concept to new territories:
(Full disclosure: Steve hess has been a friend since college days, when I took a course he taught; and like every other reporter in Washington, where Hess has spent 40 years at the Brookings Institution, I’ve quoted him many times. As he notes in his acknowledgements section, I aided his research for this book by supplying documents I had reviewed for my book on Watergate. He appeared on my online program, The Foxhole, to promote the book, in December; my criticism here will dispel any intimation of favoritism)
I confess, by the second line I was chuckling out loud over my Makchang gui. But it was a melancholy chuckling all the same: here, writ small (and absurd – what Rosen describes is not “full disclosure” but “screaming conflict of interest”), was the exact same kind of unethical effontery that the front half of the magazine so viciously and openly champions, where a thing can be patently, visibly wrong – whether it be oil-drilling in beautiful wildlife preserves or writing an extended piece of ad work for your best friend’s book – and still be done, openly done, proudly done. That’s not just crappy book-reviewing – that’s the entire political party that currently runs this country.
So maybe it’s time to wean myself off the National Review and its ilk? Full disclosure: I’ve already started doing just that.
January 25th, 2015
Some days in the Penny Press are more frustrating than others, of course, and sometimes those weeks offer clear signals of their intent to get my knickers in a twist. This happened just yesterday, in fact, when I took my first clear look at Barry Blitt’s imbecilic cover to the 26 January New Yorker, which is titled “The Dream of Reconciliation” and shows Martin Luther King marching arm-in-arm with a quartet of people who have only one thing in common: their complete indifference to any cause King ever marched for or cared about (at least two of the four people pictured marching with King, if they’d seen this cover, wouldn’t have been able to identify him). The false equivalence on display there – the fat, contented, Upper West Side substitute for thinking, the idea that if you die by police-related violence, you must have died in some noble struggle – well, it grated, at least to the extent that New Yorker covers ever can.
Frustration got worse inside the issue, although for different reasons. Jill Lepore, the magazine’s best writer, certainly doesn’t ever frustrate for pulling any substitutes for thinking; she’s as smart a writer as they come. No, it’s her subject this time around that caused the frustration – the subject of the impermanence of the Internet. The piece is called “The Cobweb,” and although it’s meant to offer a gleam of hope, it could scarcely be more frutrating for somebody who’s helped to build a thing like Open Letters Monthly online.
“The average life of a Web page is about a hundred days,” Lepore reports in the process of describing a project designed to archive Internet contents, “It’s like trying to stand on quicksand.” And the picture doesn’t get any rosier when she shifts he emphasis to more scholarly works:
The footnote, a landmark in the history of civilization, took centuries to invent and to spread. It has taken mere nearly to destroy. A footnote used to say, “Here is how I know this and where I found it.” A footnote that’s a link says, “Here is what I used to know and where I once found it, but chances are it’s not there anymore.” It doesn’t matter whether footnotes are your stock-in-trade. Everybody’s in a pinch. Citing a Web page as the source for something you know – using a URL as evidence – is ubiquitous. Many people find themselves doing it three or four times before breakfast and five times more before lunch. What happens when your evidence vanishes by dinnertime?
The piece made me want to have a stock-taking talk with Robert Minto, OLM‘s newest editor and the only one of us who’s as comfortable with code as codicils … to see if there’s anything to be done about the quicksand.
January 13th, 2015
Naturally, reading Louis Menand’s story in the January 5 New Yorker, “Pulp’s Big Moment,” sent me irresistably to my own bookshelves, specifically to the bookcases of mass-market paperbacks I’ve been ruthlessly pillaging lately (as I’ve aggrievedly mentioned already, nobody needs four different mass market paperback copies of Mansfield Park; the ability to resist the urge to buy a duplicate of a book simply because I happen to like the book has been very, very slow blossoming inside me, but I do believe I’ve finally got it), in search of exactly the kind of so-cheesy-they’re-great pulp paperbacks Menand describes.
“You can’t tell a book by its cover,” Menand writes, “but you can certainly sell one that way. To reach a mass market, paperback publishers put the product in a completely different wrapper. The pulp-paperback cover became a distinctive mid-century art form …” And Menand mentions specifically one such ‘art form’ that I immediately found on my own shelves: the old Signet mass market (“Good Reading for the Millions”) of The Catcher in the Rye, showing a scarfed and overcoated young man, presumably Holden Caufield, confronting the seedy nightlife of peep shows and loose women with only his deerstalker cap and overnight suitcase to sustain him. Menand reminds his readers that it was J. D. Salinger himself who later insisted on the book’s iconic, boring all-maroon design.
In my search I found a few more of these brownish-gold old pulp-style paperbacks, which delighted me (since I usually no longer find anything at all that I’m looking for)(this will all be solved by the Grand Inventory) – including the first that came to hand, Nora Loft’s delicious 1963 Tudor novel The Concubine, with its banner: “For this woman a king discarded his wife and child, defied the Pope, and destroyed his oldest friend.” Flipping through this surprisingly sturdy little volume, I was reminded of how good it is, how assured Lofts is at shifting moods even in the same scene:
“In Cranmer,” Henry went on complacently, “I shall have a Primate prepared to acknowledge me as Head of the Church, and to declare that I am a bachelor, and have been all along.”
She said, “Yes, Cranmer is very … pliable.” She spoke in an abstracted tone and did not look at Henry, but away, over the loop of shining river to the fields where the harvest was in progress, the harvesters burnt as brown as the sheaves they handled. She was suffering from one of her intermittent attacks of feeling insecure.
Another of these old metal-rack paperbacks I found was Frederick Pottle’s 1956 edition of Boswell’s London Journal with its happy, colorful cover giving us an idealized glimpse of Georgian London on a sunny day. The reality of course could be far less sunny, as even a random entry from Boswell can show, like this one from Thursday, 17 November 1762:
We chatted a good deal. Stewart told me that some blacks in India were attacking their boat in order to plunder it, and that he shot two with his own hand. In the afternoon between Stamford and Stilton there was a young unruly horse in the chaise which run away with the driver, and jumping to one side of the road, we were overturned. We got a pretty severe rap. Stewart’s head and my arm were somewhat hurt. However, we got up and pursued our way. During our two last stages this night, which we travelled in the dark, I was a good deal afraid of robbers. A great many horrid ideas filled my mind. There is no passion so distressing as fear, which gives us great pain and makes us appear contemptible in our own eyes to the last degree. However, I affected resolution, and as each of us carried a loaded pistol in his hand, we were pretty secure.
And the last of the little paperbacks I found this time around was Parrish, the masterpiece and bestseller by Mildred Savage of Norwich, Connecticut, here issued in a “Giant Cardinal Edition” from 1958, with a cover blaring about the Warner Bros. movie starring Claudette Colbert, Karl Malden, and an absolutely dreamy Troy Donahue: “Parrish is just eighteen now – unsure, innocent, alone. But in the violence of ambition and the scorch of passion, that boy will be forged into a man.”
Much as I love the odd individuality of these little paperbacks, finding them and flipping through them all really made me realize both how fragile they are (their binding holds up surprisingly well, but their pulp paper is now frittering away) and how impractical they are for long-term keeping or re-reading. That was one of the points of Menand’s article, actually: these things were manufactured on the cheap and pumped out to every drugstore, train station, and bowling alley in the country – they were never intended to be a permanent part of anybody’s library.
They’ll stay in mine until they can’t be read any longer … but I’ll be keeping an eye out for newer, sturdier versions.
January 6th, 2015
Beginning any new year always means batting clean-up on the odds and ends of the old year, and this latest transition was no different: I wrapped up my annals of the Penny Press in mid-December, but the Penny Press didn’t know that – it kept pouring into the sainted Open Letters Monthly Post Office box regardless of what bloviating I was doing here at Stevereads, and so it’s only natural that there’d be stragglers.
Take the December 19 & 26 issue of the TLS, for instance, in which Kathryn Murphy does a very good review of the English-language translation of Ivan Klima’s My Crazy Century, although she points out “cultural references are not glossed, and the essays, which appeared interspersed with the biographical chapters in the original, are presented without any explanations.” I reviewed Klima’s book here and have thought about it quite a bit since then (I haven’t bothered to hunt for it on my bookshelves, since I think we both know it won’t be there anymore)(*sigh*).
Or, in the same issue, a very engaging review of Andrew Roberts’ Napoleon the Great (which I reviewed here under its timid American title Napoleon: A Life) by the redoubtable Victor David Hanson, who points out quite rightly, “It is a tribute to Roberts the distinterested scholar and the fair-minded historian that there is evidence collected in this vast and intellectually honest work that can be used to question the author’s own favourable assessments of Napoleon’s career.” Certainly I’ve been questioning plenty of Roberts’ assessments in the weeks since I reviewed it.
And a real highlight among the straggles was the cover story for the January/February issue of The Atlantic, a stinging essay by James Fallows called “The Tragedy of the American Military,” in which he analyzes in damning detail deep-seated flaws in both the philosophy and the tactics of the U.S. military, and he very much spreads some blame to the American populace itself:
Citizens notice when crime is going up, or school quality is going down, or the water is unsafe to drink, or when other public functions are not working as they should. Not enough citizens are made to notice when things go wrong, or right, with the military. The country thinks too rarely, and too highly, of the 1 percent under fire in our name.
The article includes a very powerful insert by Robert Scales, who links his own experiences commanding troops in combat in Vietnam with the current shocking state of U.S. military equipment:
With few modifications, the weapon that killed my soldiers almost 50 years ago is killing our soldiers today in Afghanistan. General Ripley’s ghost is with us still. During my 35 years in the Army, it became clear to me that from Gettysburg to Hamburger Hill to the streets of Baghdad, the American penchant for arming troops with lousy rifles has been responsible for a staggering number of unnecessary deaths. Over the next few decades, the Department of Defense will spend more than $1 trillion on F-35 stealth fighter jets that after nearly 10 years of testing have yet to be deployed to a single combat zone. But bad rifles are in soldiers’ hands in every combat zone.
True, the enormous majority of the rest of the issue’s contents was decidedly lackluster (and let’s not even talk about its literary coverage in these bleak post-Schwarz days), but that piece by Fallows will be in the much-contested running for the Best of the Penny Press honors here at Stevereads in Decemeber.
March 2nd, 2012
I fully expected to go back to happily making Stevereads entries about William Ellery Channing and Ellen Sturgis Hooper, to wile away my next 1000 entries writing about dogs, Kennedys, and Taylor Lautner, but then the cover of the latest Weekly Standard caught my eye. It’s a classic Thomas Fluharty masterpiece, showing a team of workers trying to scrub down and decontaminate a Lincoln Memorialesque statue of President Clinton, and as usual, it repays close study (my favorite detail is the guy swabbing Clinton’s ear). And once hooked, I was naturally curious about the accompanying Andrew Ferguson article, “The Big Creep,” reminding readers that there was once a time when Bill Clinton wasn’t quite the beatific elder statesman he seems today. That would have been enough to make me buy the issue (one doesn’t subscribe to The Weekly Standard – that’s what Hell is for, after all), but there’s also the fact that I’ve sometimes found good book reviews in the back pages of the magazine, and I’m willing to go pretty much anywhere for good book reviews.
If only I’d refrained! If only I’d read the Clinton article (fun stuff though incomplete-feeling, Ferguson’s B-game) and then donated the issue to the nearest right-wing nutjob! But no – I was enticed by the lead-article in the book review section, something called “The Great American Novel – Will There Ever Be Another?” by Roger Kimball, the current editor and publisher of the New Criterion. Articles with titles like that invariably entice me even though I ought to know better, so I started reading.
The thing starts this way:
A couple of years ago, I was asked to give a talk about “The American Novel Today.” It wasn’t my first choice of topic, frankly, partly because I read as few contemporary novels as possible, partly (here we get into cause and effect) because most of the novels that get noticed today (like most of the visual art that gets the Establishment’s nod) should be filed under the rubric “ephemera,” and often pretty nasty ephemera at that.
I should have stopped right there, obviously. When Kimball says he doesn’t want to give lectures about the American novel today because he doesn’t read the American novel today, you can just hear the walrus clearing his throat for a full barrage of blimpisms – he isn’t confessing his ignorance of the subject as a preface to bowing out or (Heaven forfend) learning anything, oh no: he’s saying he reads as few contemporary novels as possible as a wink to his fellow blimps in the audience – I steer clear of THAT crowd!
He goes on:
I do not, you may be pleased to read, propose to parade before you a list of those exercises in evanescence, self-parody, and general ickiness that constitute so much that congregates under the label of American fiction these days.
Obviously he doesn’t propose to do that, we might respond, since he’s already admitted he doesn’t know anything about American fiction these days, although these blimpisms are certainly starting to give the impression he doesn’t expect us to believe him, aren’t they? And it just gets worse:
We get a lot of new novels at my office. I often pick up a couple and thumb through them just to keep up with what is on offer in the literary bourse. The delicate feeling of nausea that ensues as my eye wanders over these bijoux is as difficult to describe as it is predictable. The amazing thing is that it takes only a sentence or two before the feeling burgeons in the pit of the stomach and the upper lip grows moist with sweat.
To put it mildly, I know the feeling. This is a pretty exact enactment of the kind of bloated, self-satisfied, reactionary bloviating that very likely infuriated the college-age Kimball. That young man, trudging across some high-priced campus, head crammed with eager reading, probably would have said, “God, save me from ever being the kind of clueless, stuffed-shirt windbag who thinks it’s impressive to talk about dismissing a novel after glancing at its first two sentences! Anything but that!” And that younger Kimball would have been entirely correct: anybody who’s comfortable windifying about bijoux so blithely has left the path of righteousness. He’s become a bourse-hole.
No one, I submit, would pay good money for a college education and then be expected to ruminate over the fine points of what is proffered to us by the fiction industry today.
But you’ve already admitted you don’t read what the fiction industry offers today … that opening blimpism isn’t going anywhere, and since it invalidates anything that could appear in the rest of the essay, it would be entirely fair – snotty, but fair – to simply keep repeating it after every subsequent jowly pronouncement about Matthew Arnold or Samuel Johnson or Henry James. All three of those make their ritual appearances complete with hatcheted quotes wiki-plucked out of context:
Matthew Arnold once described literature as “a criticism of life.” He looked to literature, to culture generally, to provide the civilizing and spiritually invigorating function that religion had provided for earlier ages. And to a large extent, culture proved itself up to the task. Horace once said that the aim of poetry was to delight and instruct. For much of its history, literature has been content to stress the element of delight; to provide what Henry James, in an essay on the future of the novel, described as “the great anodyne.” If a tale could beguile an idle hour, that was enough.
It should almost go without saying that nothing – and I mean nothing at all – in that paragraph is right. The quote-fragments, the silly attributions (“Horace once said,” like Kimball is remembering his Delmonico’s table talk), the shallowing of deep thoughts, the sloppy equating of “literature” with, by the look of things, “French bedroom novels,” the idiotic reduction of a big, bristling literary tradition to “tales” that could beguile an idle hour, etc. – all of this is just the worst kind of brainless stump-speech generalizing, along the lines of the junk-bond candidate who opens his remarks with something dumb and crowd-pleasing like “in olden times, people knew what was right.” It is, in a word, nonsense – so I really should have stopped reading. But the roadside skidding kept happening:
The Yale literary critic Geoffrey Hartman once wrote a book called The Fate of Reading; It is not, in my judgment, a very good book, but it would have been if Professor Hartman got around to addressing the subject announced in his provocative title.
Except that The Fate of Reading is a collection of essays, not one an organic book, and Professor Hartman does ‘get around’ to addressing the subject of his title, in the essay by that title. Nausea must have set in before Kimball could notice that. Certainly the dire state of kids these days would keep his brow nice and sweaty:
The problem with computers is not the worlds they give us instant access to but the world they encourage us to neglect. Everyone knows about the studies showing the bad effects on children and teenagers of too much time in cyberspace (or in front of the television set). It cuts them off from their family and friends, fosters asocial behavior, disrupts their ability to concentrate, and makes it harder for them to distinguish between fantasy and reality.
Again, no, not hardly, nothing, nothing at all. The ‘studies’ that ‘everyone knows’ about aren’t cited here, of course (no doubt they were conducted in olden times!), but Kimball’s claims about them are just more liberal-baiting nonsense. Kids these days have never been more in touch with their friends and family, and their knowledge of reality eclipses that of any other generation the world has ever seen. Gassy lines like the ones in that quote not only strongly suggest that Kimball doesn’t know any actual children or teenagers but that he might go days or even weeks without consulting the opinions of anybody in the world beside himself.
His point, once you wade through all the nonsense and blimpish garbage, is that modern society just doesn’t care about novels as seriously as earlier ages did, and that has abetted their degeneration. Time has worked against the genre:
It has often been observed that the novel is the bourgeois art form per excellence: that in its primary focus on domestic manners and morals, its anatomy of private vices and exercise of private virtues, it answered the spiritual needs of a specific historical epoch.
With the passing or maturation of that epoch, perhaps the novel, too, has matured or even graduated to the second infancy or senility …
I trust by now you all already know: yep, nonsense. Utter nonsense. What the hell ‘historical epoch’ covers the roughly 350 years since the ‘modern’ English novel was developed? Or is Kimball perhaps talking about the ‘historical epoch’ encompasses the thousand years since Tale of Genji hit the Barnes & Noble front tables? This is the kind of crappy from-the-hip junk-writing that would get torpedoed in any self-respecting high school English class in the country (to say nothing of the red, pulpy mass it would be after a good thorough Open Letters editorial car-wash).
And of course the most troubling thing about the whole piece isn’t the bumbling blimpisms of one writer who’s a trifle too proud of his provincialism – the most troubling thing is that The Weekly Standard would print such a waffly jeremiad, a wandering elderly rant taking ill-conceived pot-shots at a genre that can use as many fans as it can get. Kimball is (accidentally, no doubt) right about one implication: high book costs, lowering literacy standards, and increased entertainment distractions have all taken a toll on the number of readers who’ll try contemporary novels (although Kimball is dead wrong in his implication that before the Internet and evil old TV people were free of such distractions and therefore happily reading – there’s always been beer, and sex, and beer-sodden sex). What he’s wrong about he’s very, very wrong about, and starts out wrong right at the beginning, with the invocation of that tired old concept, ‘the great American novel.’ Only people who never actually read fiction ever use that trite old tag – everybody else knows that there are lots of great American novels … a new one comes out virtually every year, and although none of them is ever by Philip Roth, all of them speak to the ‘manners and morals’ of their day, in ways that are every bit as important and challenging as the ways Crime and Punishment (that idle hour laff-riot) or Moll Flanders spoke to theirs.
Kimball should load up on his ativan and actually venture beyond the first two sentences of some of those novels he gets for free, but he’d need an open mind for that – and judging by this wretched essay, I’m not sure he has one. If his blimpish negligence ever gives him qualms, I’m happy to make recommendations.
And in the meantime, how nice it would be to turn to something that didn’t give me agita! A nice Vanity Fair retrospective on Ronnie & Nancy Reagan, for instance, or a luscious Helen Vendler essay on George Herbert in the TLS, or perhaps the informative and always-soothing samplings of Birdwatcher’s Digest, where our feathered friends are never bloatishly compared to birds of olden times, and where no fathead authors claim that ‘everyone knows’ today’s birds are asocial loners with no culture. And the nests these birds are building these days! My upper lip is moist already!
February 27th, 2012
The prospect of a new London Review of Books leading off with a luxuriously long review of Stephen Mitchell’s new translation of Homer’s Iliad filled me with passionate expectation (‘expectation’ because my subscription’s copy was its customary week late, sigh). It’s the sort of gloriously nerdy thing the LRB can be relied upon to do; even in an issue half-devoured by long political essays (as this one was), the journal’s devotion to the whole spectrum of books couldn’t be clearer.
Then I read Edward Luttwak’s review.
I read a lot of reviews, and I also write a lot of reviews (indeed, I wrote a review of Mitchell’s Iliad myself, at the end of 2011) – I think it’s safe to say I know reviews fairly well. I haven’t yet in 2012 read a review as bad as this one. It manages to be boring, priggish, superfluous, and clueless all at the same time. I’m no great fan of the approach Mitchell took in his Iliad, but he could have rendered Homer’s great epic in limericks and he’d still deserve a better review than this one.
Luttwak starts off as poorly as a reviewer can: by using a gimmick that he means to be impressive but that instead annihilates any trust the reader might have in him going in:
At the beginning of January, in the bookshop of Terminal 2 at San Francisco airport, I looked for a translation of the Iliad – not that I really expected to find one. But there were ten: one succinct W.H.D. Rouse prose translation and one Robert Graves, in prose and song, both in paperback; two blank verse Robert Fagles in solid covers; one rhythmic Richmond Lattimore with a lengthy new introduction; and three hardback copies of the new Stephen Mitchell translation, with refulgent golden shields on the cover and several endorsements on the back …
What, no Cowper? The gimmick here is to somehow work in a glancing mention of previous renditions of the Iliad, presumably to warn readers off thinking our reviewer has never heard of the poem before. It’s a standard gimmick when reviewing an oft-translated work, and it suffers here only from location, location, location. “Having before me the new Harvard University Press Annotated Emerson, I recalled that my teenage son liked Emerson. I wandered into his room in search of a copy – not that I really expected to find one. But there were ten, including an 1841 first edition with rare pornographic doodles by the author. Briefly pausing to wonder how my son raised the $450,000 asking price, I read on …”
The rest of the review – and there’s a lot of rest – just gets worse. After pointlessly raising the question of why the Iliad is so popular, Luttwak gets in an elbow when the refs aren’t looking: “Some of course – nasty fellows – would widen the explanation by seeing Americans as a whole as war-lovers, hence war-book addicts, hence Iliad buyers.” And he’s the worst kind of shot-taker: the kind who then wide-eyedly denies he did it:
That’s lame to begin with, for there are countless ways of getting that fix much more easily than by reading 15, 693 lines of hieratic verse bound to offend military history buffs, because of both the extreme, pervasive emotionalism – all the weeping wives of other war books are outdone by the floods of tears of Homer’s greatest warriors – and the frequent confusion of the battle tactics of two different eras.
Not so lame that Luttwak didn’t suggest it, though – no matter how scurrilously he then tries to un-suggest it. He uses the national suggestion as a spring-board to an absolutely incredibly long digression on Homer in China and Japan – a thousand-word tangent I read with mounting incredulity, wondering what on Earth the piece’s editor could have been thinking to leave it in, or even if the piece had an editor. On my copy I’d no sooner read this huge digression than I drew a thick ‘X’ through all of it, and I hope that if he ever reads it, the even-tempered Mitchell does the same.
But when Luttwak finally remembered to start reviewing Mitchell, I almost wished for the digression back again. His actual consideration of Mitchell’s Iliad was as windy and oleaginous and miserably self-absorbed as anything I’ve read since Harold Bloom at his worst and most phoned-in. The reeking false modesty of this section is so soiling that any lingering authority Luttwak might have had is almost instantly subsumed in the reader’s desire to dunk his head in the nearest toilet. “It’s not that I would hazard to challenge the merits of Mitchell’s translation …” “I am scarcely an authority on translating anything from any language…” “Nor would I presume to impugn Mitchell’s qualifications as a translator of the peculiar Homeric mixture of archaic Ionic with some Aeolic (Sappho’s dialect), bits of more recent Attic no doubt derived from its written stage, and even some faint remnants of the Mycenaean Greek of the previous millennium …” “In my own ignorance I do not impugn his mastery of Homeric Greek …”
GET it? You do GET it, right? He keeps professing his own humbly-bumbly ignorance of Lord, just everything, while working in all those sly little informed asides to make sure you don’t believe him. It’s an oily, wheedling sort of party-ploy I honestly thought went out with the hula hoop; all the things he assures us he wouldn’t dream of doing are things you know instantly he’s going to spend the rest of the review doing, and he does. I would not presume my bony Irish ass: Luttwak opens this section by admonishing us that he’s no expert, he’s just a stranger here, an innocent bystander who happened to wander into Terminal 2 of the San Francisco airport. But we groundlings better not take him at his word, or there’ll be trouble; Mark Twain was the last person to do this correctly – all the others, Luttwak at the head of them, hurry to counteract any possibility that we might think them humble. Only a few lines after all that faux-humility crap, we get paragraphs opening like this:
The earlier date, moreover, opens the door for the evidence extracted from deciphered Hittite cuneiform tablets, irrelevant to a ninth-century BCE or later Iliad, because the last remnant of that empire had been extinguished by then, but contemporary with Mycenaean Greek life over the previous thousand years. Much fuller use of new archaeological evidence is being incorporated in the monumental (one volume per Homeric book) and wonderful Basler Homer-Kommentar by Anton Bierl and Joachim Latacz …
And so on. Which doesn’t for an instant “impugn” Mitchell, whether it should or not. No, the gambit itself only has the effect of making Luttwak himself come off as hateful, petty, preening, and drastically over-compensating. When a reviewer tries to establish his authority by such archly mugging mannerisms, he permanently alienates his readers’ sympathies – none of those readers will finish this piece thinking Mitchell got anything like a fair reading, especially since, again unbelievably, the piece’s last 1000 words don’t even mention the book allegedly being reviewed, nor anything about translating in general or translating this book in particular. Instead, it’s just another long digression, this time on violence in Homer.
This issue of the LRB had great stuff in it – most especially a wonderful dual-review by Rosemary Hill of two new books on Prince Albert and a quick, rousing inquiry by the great Charles Nicholl into a historical footnote from Vasari – and that’s a lucky thing, because great stuff in abundance was needed, to wash out the rancid taste of that long opening piece.